Everyone knows the story of Atlantis, the mythological island that sank into the ocean. The origin of the story, however, is not a Disney movie, but a Socratic dialogue.
The dialogues of Timaeus-Critias begin the day after the events in The Republic. Having described his ideal city-state, Socrates mentions ancient Athens as having been such a place, and Critias tells of its relation with Atlantis.
Atlantis was a mighty nation on the other side of the Pillars of Heracles. Following their fall out with the Gods, the unjust Atlantians are defeated, and the island sunk into the sea. If read closely, the demise of Atlantis is attributed to flooding and earthquake.
The survival of Athens can, in many ways be seen as the importance of disaster risk reduction in the New Urban Agenda. While it is a logical fallacy to say that Atlantis was struck by disaster because it was unjust, thus, as Athens was not, it must be just, we must begin to look at disasters past. What better story to examine our ideas of government and power as one of an unjust nation that meets its demise by natural disaster.
Adopted in September 2015, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals target a better world for 2030. Goal 11 reads “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” Therefore, if we are to achieve a resilient city, it must be just.
The City We Need 2.0, whose drafting committee I co-chaired, talks of the just city as well. In our Principles for a New Urban Agenda, the very first line of principle one, we say explicitly: “The City We Need is people-centered, ethical, and just.”
In many ways, in fact, The City We Need might not be so different from the city-state that Socrates thought ideal. The aristocratic Polis was to be achieved by educating the entire population, training mind and body — interpretable as health — and making sure that people went down the path that best suited them.
While commonly thought of as being ruled by one singular philosopher-king, it was in fact a governing class based on age. The elderly had a role, youth had a role, and this constantly changed as people got older and new children were born. Men and women were equal, and there was a place for everyone. Athens was a city-state, it challenges our current notions of region and territory. What better way to begin questioning how to govern mega-cities?
So if Socrates got it pretty close to right 2500 years ago, what went wrong?
We stopped having dialogue. We took the words on the page and stopped asking questions. Socratic dialogues are famous because they are a series of questions, and if we don’t question it back, we are missing the point. It is for this reason that I wrote the overarching principle of education as an active process, one “which calls for continuous learning and reflection.” We are doomed to fail our quest for innovation if we forget to examine what was already there before saying we need something new.